Transcript from an interview with Steven Kellogg

Steven Kellogg

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Steven Kellogg. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Meet Steven Kellogg

My name is Steven Kellogg. I'm an author and illustrator of picture books. I've been publishing books for almost 45 years, published about 110 books, many of which I've written. I've also illustrated a great many by other authors and I've traveled all over the country to thousands of schools in all 50 states during the last 40 years or so and I have a wonderful times visiting with teachers and librarians and kids in schools, libraries, bookstores and colleges.

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Joyful work

The first real awareness I have that art was a major part of who I am as a person would be the major theme of my adult life because I had loved it so much as a child, was really very, very early. I loved to draw from the very beginning. I was fascinated by the pictures that I saw in the books that I loved and the way an artist in an illustration could bring a whole new world into my vision that I had never experienced before and that that picture would stay there and be enjoyed by my sisters, by my friends and by kids for years to come. And I thought, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to make pictures like that, that would be that arresting and that would last for a long, long time."

When I was a kid, I was very aware of the fact that a lot of the adults in my neighborhood hated their jobs. I lived in a densely populated, but really fun suburban neighborhood where each house on the street had its own mini drama and all these family sagas were a great way to learn about how life really operates and how relationships fail or prosper. And I noticed a lot of the adults going off to work in the morning were very downcast and angry and depressed about going to work. Knowing that one day I would be an adult, I really didn't want to lose the fun of childhood by going into this dark period where every day started off with resignation and gloom or worse. And so I was determined to get to know myself very well and choose a job that I thought would be just right for me.

I got very curious about the people who wrote the books and made the pictures in the books that I loved so much. As I identified them as the same person, I very often over and over again I thought, "I'd like to do what those people do." I became aware of the fact that they did it for a job. This is what they did everyday was to create books. I was very interested in the whole idea of telling stories and making images to go with them and doing that on a full time basis as a grown up.

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Thank you, Mr. Sheldon

Fortunately, there were a number of teachers along the way who responded very positively to my love of artwork and writing, and they singled me out for particular encouragement. That really meant a lot because I was desperately looking for adult role models and during the 50s, they were hard to find. There was a high school art teacher named Mr. Sheldon who was very supportive and very kind. I really value the fact that he again singled me out and encouraged me and said, "You should think about going to a college where you can major in art and turning it into a career."

I needed to hear that at that particular time because it was in early high school and I was getting a little bit discouraged and all the changes were happening that happen in early high school years and I was beginning to have some doubts about myself. His input at just that moment, even though I don't think he knew how effective he was, meant a great deal to me.

Telling stories on paper

For some reason, storytelling was always something that came very naturally to me. I loved the magic of stories and I loved the idea of sharing stories with other people. I loved being read aloud to and that was an introduction to the whole idea of storytelling. But then the idea of creating my own stories was a really exhilarating discovery and then illustrating them, as well.

I have two wonderful younger sisters to whom I'm still very close, and we had this process as children — we call it telling stories on paper — where I would sit between the two of them with a large stack of blank paper in my lap. It was actually paper that my accountant father brought home from his office that had facts and figures on one side and then blank, and they were white on the other side. He rescued them from the paper shredder of the copy machine and brought them home and I could use the white side for drawing. So it was a really wonderful extensive supply of materials.

I would put one of those big stacks of paper in my lap, make up a story for my two younger sisters who were sitting on either side of me, and draw the pictures as I went along, passing a drawing to each one of them as I continued the narrative. We called this process as I said telling stories on paper. We spent many, many happy hours during my childhood sharing those stories. They were a really supportive audience. Had I not been their older brother, they probably would not have felt compelled to sit there during these endless rants. But they were very patient about doing so.

My sisters, they all loved to read. They were all readers and they loved being read to. The storytelling thing was my particular obsession. I was so domineering about it that they probably were wonderful storytellers but I intimidated them — without meaning to — to the point where they never really took it up themselves. Although my younger sister, Martha, is a wonderful artist and she's a professional artist and paints beautifully and does cards for the National Wildlife Federation and exhibits her watercolors. I'm one of her biggest fans.

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A bounty of books

When we were kids, we had an aunt who was a great source of books. She would always give books as gifts on Christmas and for birthdays. When I was in second grade, she gave my older sister and I each a subscription to a major book club. It was a Junior Literary Guild. Every month, we would get a book. To me, that was just the most wonderful present in the world because it really was the gift that kept on giving; these books just kept coming and coming and coming and they were very often a couple of illustrations in them, really interesting illustrations that I was fascinated by. When she would visit, she would aloud to us.

My mother would read aloud to us, but particularly my grandmother was a great lover of books. She lived with us for a couple of years when we were in elementary school and she was definitely from the Victorian era. She read Gone with the Wind over and over and over again through a magnifying glass. She modeled the passion of reading for us, and we saw how much pleasure it gave her and what a big part of her day it was. That was a real contribution to us putting together the idea that books can be a very important and very meaningful part of your life.

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A beautiful duet

The relationship between text and illustration in the picture book is what makes the picture book such a unique art form. It's related to film, but it also goes back to the very beginning of time to cave paintings and murals in temples and public buildings and before the stories were put together words and pictures and bound between hard covers. Instinctively we respond to pictorial storytelling because it's been such a part of our collective experience for thousands and thousands of years.

The magic of the illustrated book where part of the story is told by the words, part of the story is told by the pictures. You turn the page and become more and more deeply involved in the story and the pictures. As you turn the page, you lose your own morays. You lose your own groundings, your environment fades and disappears and you become completely a part of the story and of the pictures that you are studying and examining.

As someone who puts books together using words and pictures, I try to remember how special that was to me as a child and balance the pictures and the words in such a way that each of them tells part of the story, but not the whole story and they leave each other plenty of space for the reader to become involved and make connections between the words and the pictures as he or she examines them, both the pictures and the reacts to the music of the words.

Going with the musical analogy, A well-illustrated book is like a beautiful duet where you have two voices that are making music together, but they each have their own sound, their own tone and they're each dealing with their own piece of the music. Where the two parts come together, they create a new whole that soars above the sum of its parts and creates something that is more beautiful and more meaningful, more compelling than either voice was by itself.

When I'm illustrating a book, whether it's one of my own or by another author, I try to always stay very closely either the music of the author's language. Again, that musical analogy. I try to make that music part of my emotional vocabulary as I read the story over and over again and become very immersed in the subtleties and the uniqueness of each author's stories or if the story is my own, then what makes it different from stories I've done before?

That kind of growing understanding, familiarity helps me to suddenly shape my illustration styles so that I create pictures that harmonize with the music of the words and create a picture book that is unique and different from any other and really honors the text, enhances the text and also gives the text a chance to breathe life into the picture. It's just a question of getting the two of them to really work as so perfectly together that you can't imagine separating them. They seem that they belong together; they've always been together and they always will be together. The book is really a unit; it's a thing that involves pictures and words, totally wedded to each other.

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Sharing picture books with children

When we're sharing books with children, it's important to give them a chance to really slow the whole process down and become involved in dissecting the picture detail by detail and understanding the nuances of expression and the way the story is enhanced by the composition of the picture itself, the way things are placed, the way things move through the environment the artist is depicting.

There is a coffee table book called All Mirrors Are Magic Mirrors that expresses the power of the picture book and also the importance of viewing it in this manner. I use this quote when I'm doing programs for teachers, librarians and parents, but mostly for adults in terms of what the picture book really means to the child and the quote goes like this…

"Life moves so swiftly. It's such a blur that we all need on occasion to have the frenzy still so that we may inspect at leisure the furniture of our world. The child not long ago, a resident of steeliness. Most knew such opportunities and the picture book provides them. Acts of arrest and selection are acts tending to an understanding and tranquility. Having stopped the movement, we discover the form and pursuing the form, we find beauty."

One thing that happens when I go to schools that I sometimes find a little bit frustrating is that the teachers warn me that because of the structure of the day, I'll be doing programs for older children as well and they're concerned that I might meet with resistance from the older kids because the books are viewed as "baby" books and a pejorative judgment on the maturity level of the older children involved.

I find when I present the books as illustrated storytelling and the magic of the images and the words coming together and then share stories with them that they become extremely interested and they are very responsive and I've never had any of the negative reactions that I've been warned about. I have a feeling that picture books can be used with older children much more effectively and on a broad basis than they really are right now.

Specifically, for kids who maybe have some difficulty with the continuity aspects of a book that is just hundreds of pages of formidable text. These kids who have maybe some problem reacting to that challenge in a positive way, if they have more time with picture books without fear of being judged immature or not on the same level as their peers, if the picture books were presented in a more interesting and more adventuresome way that they would not only help these kids with the nuts and bolts of their reading, but will also give them a lot of pleasure and also enhance their level of visual literacy, which is one of the things that illustrations do.

That's an area that we overlook in terms of educating young people and certainly many adults I know just don't see. They don't look. They don't see. They make generalized judgments about everything in their environment. They're missing a great deal of meaning and beauty in the world that way.

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Kids very often ask me if I'm ever going to write a book about me and I tell them, and I really feel this is true, that everything you do in a creative area is autobiographical; you just can't help but put yourself into it. I've never done a book that's just about me, but every book is about me. Even if I chose that it would not be, I think, that you almost can't help but put aspects of yourself into it.

And things that are important to me like I am a really devoted animal lover. I always have been, and I enjoy putting animals in my books and have even written a series of books about a Great Dane I owned earlier in my adult life whose name was Pinkerton. I had Pinkerton for ten years. All of my dogs and cats have been wonderful — each one unique and each one very personable — and I've really loved the time I spent with each and every one of them.

Pinkerton hit our family like an artillery shell. He was a very unusual puppy and completely out of control, yet incredibly intelligent and loving. It took me a little bit of time to learn to march to the beat of Pinkerton's drum and to really appreciate him for the extraordinary character that he was. He just suggested so many ideas for stories that a series of books evolved about him, using his personality as kind of a springboard.

I always tell the kids, they ask me, "Did Pinkerton really do this," in some of these outrageous situations that I've depicted in the pages of the Pinkerton series. In most cases, he did not, but it was the spirit of his personality and his obstreperous imaginative mischief that gave rise to my imaginative concoctions and that evolved into plots for the Pinkerton books.

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Larger than life characters

One of the things that is important to me when I'm putting a book together and populating the books with characters is to create characters that I would like to know better and since I'm the author, I have the chance to get to know them better. I have a chance to influence their behavior to a significant degree, but they also talk back to me. They also tell me in quiet ways which way they want the story to go. I love the interaction between creating characters and responding to characters at the same time.

The book really functions best when it is almost like a living thing that has energy and a lot of feeling and a life force that's really palpable again to seduce the reader away from his or her own time into the time that the book offers him. I try to give the characters larger than life proportions, so that they really have a chance to reach out of the printed page and grab the reader and pull him or her into the story.

One of the things I love about the tall tale drama in American literature is that the tall tale heroes are our mythology; they capture the spirit of the American imagination and American creativity. I also love the fact that they place a huge emphasis on humor because humor is extremely important and I always want to give kids a chance to laugh. Laughter and humor and not taking ourselves too seriously are very important tools to lighten the path which we follow in life.

They also are very good in terms of lubricating personal relationships and helping people to see themselves and each other in a less serious, less formal and less vulnerable light. Humor has a tendency to bond, pull people together. When people are laughing and smiling, it's very contagious and very overly welcoming. The tall tale heroes are so full of energy and so full of confidence and they overcome overwhelming obstacles with great good humor.

No matter how difficult or perilous or impossible the situation becomes, they always redouble their efforts and manage to triumph in imaginative and outrageously unlikely ways that one wouldn't normally anticipate in the people we meet along the way. That's why they have been so popular for so many decades and why they are now being pretty much embraced as the American myth.

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Research is an adventure!

Most of the books that I undertake that have any kind of a factual basis whatsoever, even the tall tales which take place mostly in the 19th Century, I do a lot of research because I really want them to have a ring of authenticity. Then the fictional aspects, the imagination aspects kind of can explode out of that, but they have a solid base that relates to the actual background from which they sprang.

For example, in the contemporary book like If You Decide to Go to the Moon, and I did an enormous amount of research on that book. In fact, I worked on that book for ten years before I really was satisfied with my ideas for the design and the movement and the details and the characters and what not. During that time, I read extensively and looked at lots and lots of pictures about the Apollo moon shots and how the early astronauts reacted to the enormous challenges and difficulties of adapting to the hours they spent on the moon. That really was very, very helpful in terms of overall impact of the book.

Research can be a real adventure in its own right. I mean, for me to research something like space travel and what it would be like to walk on the moon opened my eyes to so many aspects of that that superficially when I hear news casts about so and so in the space shuttle or whatever I don't really grasp the reality of that in a way that I wouldn't have had I not done all the research for the new book.

For example, I learned amazing facts like there's no sun on the moon. There is no possibility of music on the moon. That's something that we would have to edit out of our lives completely. There is no color on the moon, so it would be no painting on the moon; everything would be monochromatic. It would be black and white, because color doesn't exist on the moon.

Things like that really give you a feeling for the starkness of that lunar environment and the inhospitable quality that the moon provides for travelers from Earth who've come from a planet that is so rich and so lush and so nurturing and so diverse and so beautiful that we aren't prepared for that kind of visual and sensory deprivation that the moon forces us to accept. Learning that really brought a reality to perceptions of both the moon and the Earth that I wouldn't have had had I not done that research. I've never met Faith McNulty because I don't usually meet my authors, the authors whose books I illustrate, but that was one of her major goals.

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Clorinda, a cow with grit and imagination

Clorinda is one of my favorite characters created by Robert Kinerk, who wrote the first book Clorinda and I'm now working on the third book in the series about Clorinda. There's something so fascinating about this cow, who breaks through the ordinary bovine barriers that make being a cow a rather unpromising situation which to find oneself.

She reacts to stimuli, like seeing a magnificent ballet or watching a bird fly or in the case of the latest one, imagining herself as an athletic star on the pitcher's mound with the Boston Red Sox, and then goes about ways of trying to make that image a reality and invites the reader to dream beyond the barriers in which he or she is confined and also as the illustrator gives me a chance to create environments in which Clorinda can experience not only heartbreaking setbacks, but also it gives a chance to show her determination, her grit and her imaginative perseverance and her great good humor, because she always winds up in some way or another making her dream come true.

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Reading together: the book is the bridge

One of the finest hours of the picture books is when it's being shared by an adult and a child. It's a very meaningful, nurturing and actually beautiful forum of sharing between an adult and a child where the adult is the guide and the book is, in some ways, an object that the adult can use to illuminate certain pathways through the forest for the child and the book invites a shared experience when it's opened half on one lap, half opened on the other lap. The book bridges together, balance together the adult and the child; allows them to experience a story together.

The adult, being the more experienced reader, can unravel mysterious pronunciations and meanings and spellings of words that the child might not yet have experienced and also can answer questions about the illustrations and also listen to the reactions and the observations of the child. So they are in some ways, hand-in-hand, exploring this unfolding story together and turning the pages and moving more and more deeply into the story.

It's a beautiful way for kids to learn about the magic of reading and developing a warm relationship with the authors and the illustrators. Great books for them. But almost most important of all, it is that bonding of the adult and child, where the adult really can establish him or herself as a caring, loving mentor. It deepens and enhances the relationship between the adult and the child and allows them to build on that relationship in lots of areas that they're going to experience together that are not as easy and harmonious and warm and welcoming as the sharing of a story.

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Kellogg reads Clorinda

I'm Steven Kellogg. I write and illustrate children's books and one of the books that I've been working on during the last few years is a series, actually a series of books about an amazing cow named Clorinda. The author is Robert Kinerk. I don't work with Robert. I work with the editor and Robert works with the editor because sometimes I make some changes in the text or propose ideas for changes in the text.

But since I'm not the author, that's not really my job, but if I feel that the text and the pictures will work together more successfully and I have an idea that I just can't keep inside myself then I share it with the editor. If the editor agrees with me, then the editor checks with the author and if the author agrees, then that suggestion is incorporated into the book itself. There are a number of those in Clorinda.

People very often ask me do I prefer being an author or an illustrator? Do I like to be the author of my own books or do I enjoy illustrating books by other authors. I really enjoy doing both because even when I'm the illustrator I get a chance to work on the words as well. I love stretching my imagination by enjoying the writing of other authors and having a chance to put pictures together with the magic of their words.

Robert does his stories in verse and verse, like song, is just lots of fun and very uplifting. Clorinda, being such a merry cow and a personable cow, lends herself to rhyme. So here on the cover of Clorinda, we're introduced to this wonderful cow bouncing onto the stage to an appreciative audience. This is the imaginative world that she hopes to inhabit.

This is the first end paper. I always try to tell stories on the end paper itself. Clorinda is in her truck heading off at dawn and we see two signs. One says, "Vote! Cast your ballot! Don't delay!" The other one says, "Classical ballet is in town today." Clorinda sees both signs. Then we find on the title page, she's in the theater and she's holding the program for the ballet and she's very confused, she says, "Ballot… ballet," because the spelling is very similar. There is only the o in ballot and an e in ballet. Otherwise it's the same word. We see the dancers bouncing out of the stage.

On the next page, her confusion is explained in the first verse. A cow named Clorinda, whose farm was remote, would drive into town each November to vote. But when she will happen through some odd mischance to sit through a program of classical dance. "Super! Marvelous! Magnificent! Wow! I'd like to try that myself," said the cow.

She asked a young farmhand named Leonard P. Cage to build in the back of the barn a small stage. There behind tractors and old bales of hay, she put on a tutu and practiced ballet. But her peer group is less than supportive. "You can't dance. Are you nuts," said a turkey named Doris. Ducks, geese and hens in a chorus, all said to Clorinda, "No, no. That won't do. You're only a cow and what they do is moo." They tell her, "Moo, moo, just moo." Clorinda is devastated by this rejection.

Her friend Len finds her weeping behind the barn door. "Those critics," scoffed Len. "Just tell them moo, poo. A person can't know what it is she can do. Be bold and imaginative. Shoot from the sky and if it's dance that you love, then it's dance that you should try." "Yes," cried Clorinda, and then for long days she practiced her leaps and she practiced jetés.

"At last," she told Len. "Well, the next step is clear. I'm off to New York. I must start my career." "I'll help," explained friend Len. "Here's some cash for some flight." "Thank you," she said and she took off that night. Brilliant Manhattan. She felt her heart pound. She rented a walk-up and then went around where other young hopefuls who lined each up day in search of a place in a corps de ballet. See them all lined up and Clorinda is in line with all the young dance students. But the wait is long.

They lined up and lined up and lined up each day in search of a place in the corps de ballet. She finally gets to the head of the line and the sign says, "No openings. Go away." Clorinda is devastated. Brutal Manhattan! She felt her heart throb. She looked at her checkbook and looked for a job. "Buck up," she thought, "for you know that it's true a person can't tell what a person can do. Don't be discouraged. Don't sit down and cry. Get out there, Clorinda, and give it a try."

She pounded the pavement for day after day, but finally she found in a tiny café a job waiting tables and cleaning up spills. The boss told her, "Smile when collecting the bills." But she keeps auditioning for dance jobs. "Keep smiling," she thought, "as you search for the chance — " NO! " — to prove to the world that you really can dance." NO! "Keep smiling," she sobbed, "as you constantly hear we simply aren't hiring cows now, my dear."

Poor Len was distressed when he read in her letter, "Things cannot get worse; they only get better." And better they got. The very next day, a theatrical agent was in the café. Clorinda's heart leaped when the fact was disclosed that a dancer he'd hired was now indisposed. "Indisposed," thought Clorinda, "Why this must be fate." She spun, she stepped up and took his plate. She brought him his coffee on high tippy toes and glided away, just like someone who knows pirouetting and leaping and all about dance and the next thing you know, she got her big chance.

Len was the first one she phoned up to tell, "Tonight I'm on stage in the ballet Giselle." She rushed off to practice. She practiced all day, on barre, her positions and of course, her jeté. The one leap she feared would be quite hard to do for she had to be caught by a dancer named Lou. She studied her partner and then told him, "Somehow you may want to think twice about catching a cow."

"No problem," Lou told her. He said, "Please check out my biceps and check out my knees. I'm in perfect condition and trained, furthermore, in helping my partner glide safe to the floor." "Well, fine then we'll try it," Clorinda replied, "People can't tell, at least not until they try what it is they can do," and that is a fact. The stagehands hissed, "Hurry! You'll miss the first act."

Sparkly and swirling, the dancers took flight. The music, the costumes, the dazzling light. The grace and the glamour. The shouts said, "Bravo!" filled her heart with a wonderful glow. She danced like a feather. She danced like a flame. She skipped and she twirled until the time came for each ballerina to fly through the air. All can float downward and come to earth where their partners are waiting in perfect array to step forth and catch them and dance them away.

Those ahead of Clorinda flew just like a cloud. The applause, they excited, was fervent and loud. "Here goes," said Clorinda, her heart in her throat. She galloped toward Lou and then leaped upward to float, to fly like a bird does, as butterflies do. But the opposite happened, she flattened poor Lou! She crashed and she smashed and she crushed and

"You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend." — Paul Sweeney